Posts Tagged ‘dispute resolution’

The alternative to the state, part 4: polycentric law

July 31, 2012 10 comments

Wouldn’t it be great if we did not have to follow every law the state passes over us? But then, how would we enforce contracts? How would we enforce property rights? What if someone attacked us? If these concerns could be answered, if we could still have contracts and property and security without following the laws of the state, would you be interested?

Advocates of a minimal state (minarchists) spend considerable time debating which government functions can or should be handed over to the private sector. They may say the state should contract out utilities, social security or the military. However, under such an arrangement, the state would retain ultimate control of all those things, because it would have the prerogative of the law. The law is, in fact, the source of the state’s power.

But as I keep asking, why would we want to give the power to make and enforce laws to a small group of people? Is it that we can trust these people because “we” “elected” them, or threaten not to do so? Or that we do not trust others? Anarchists are not against all rules, contrary to the straw man thrust upon them, just against state laws. My post on state law can be found here; it is the why not of state law. Law that is determined not by one institution but by many is called polycentric, customary or privately-produced law. This post is about the why and how of polycentric law.

In The Market for Liberty, Morris and Linda Tannehill dismiss the idea that we need monopolistic law and force to solve disputes.

It is interesting to note that the advocates of government see initiated force ( the legal force of government ) as the only solution to social disputes. According to them, if everyone in society were not forced to use the same court system, and particularly the same final court of appeal, disputes would be insoluble. Apparently it doesn’t occur to them that disputing parties are capable of freely choosing their own arbiters, including the final arbiter, and that this final arbiter wouldn’t need to be the same agency for all disputes which occur in the society. They have not realized that disputants would, in fact, be far better off if they could choose among competing arbitration  agencies so that they could reap the benefits of competition and specialization.

It should be obvious that a court system which has a monopoly guaranteed by the force of statutory law will not give as good quality service as will free-market arbitration agencies which must compete for their customers. Also, a multiplicity of agencies facilitates specialization, so that people with a dispute in some specialized field can hire arbitration by experts in that field . . . instead of being compelled to submit to the judgment of men who have little or no background in the matter.

As we will see, a better system is preferable and possible.

A simple rule is, the easier it is for normal people to do what they want without harming others, to do business and trade, to create and innovate, the better off the people around them. There are, in fact, things a government can do to aid an economy. One of the most important, as seen from the studies in The Mystery of Capital by Hernando de Soto, is upholding contracts and property rights. If there are ways to do these things in a free market, while lowering or eliminating the risks of abuse associated with state intervention, they are worth considering.

Law around the world

In his paper Privately-Produced Law, Tom W. Bell explains that people around the world and throughout history have used more equitable legal systems than the centralised model. Some legal systems that many would write off as “primitive” are in fact very effective at protecting individual freedom and property, resolving complex conflicts, avoiding violence and can legislate changes in the law. They do all these things without the inefficient, unsatisfying elite control of the system most civilised people are used to.

In such systems, people make reciprocal agreements and victims enforce them. Such agreements are necessary to belong to the community in the first place; and since they are mutually beneficial (unless one knows he or she is going to break the law), people believe in them. Economic restitution, proportionate to the severity of the crime, is the main form of punishment for torts. The guilty yield to the punishment largely due to the threat of ostracism.

Old Anglo-Saxon law made courts out of public assemblies. Interpreting the law was not a problem, as custom took care of it. The outcome of the dispute was about the facts of the case. There were no crimes against the state, or against society. There were only crimes against individuals.

Various other groups have come up with laws regarding the conduct of their members, including immigrant communities, merchants and guilds and communes. It is related to arbitration. Commercial arbitration has become a popular, fast and efficient form of resolving disputes for the insurance, construction and textile industries. (Find more on arbitration below.)

Contracts and reputation

In advanced capitalist countries, where legal contracts have a long history and a solid place in the culture, enforcing contracts is one the state does reasonably well. How could contracts work in a stateless society? Well, how did they work before the state began enforcing them? How do they work where there is no state? Generally, the answer is the same: reputation. If you are known for enforcing your contracts, you win new ones, and you make money. If you break a contract, you lose big time. You lose future contracts but you also lose face from all your peers. Nowadays, that could mean being smeared on the internet as well. Shame, and in more extreme cases, ostracism, is a common punishment throughout the world for anyone who breaks with his or her expected obligations.

Reputation is very important. In a small enough community, we would probably not need any kind of court system because if Johnny cheats Holly, everyone will find out, and will shame, attempt to rehabilitate or, at the extreme, ostracise Johnny. We could formalise this process for a larger society with some kind of reputation database, possibly along the lines of what eBay and Amazon use, or possibly more sophisticated, using arbitrators. Arbitrators would be judged on their reputation. They would likely specialise in a field. They could create permissions to add entries and create permissions to read the database, but cannot alter or remove entries.

When Johnny and Holly agree to enter into a contract, they take it to an arbitrator, Justine, who gets a fee. Justine makes an entry in the database. If Justine makes a ruling against Johnny the cheat, and Johnny does not comply with it, the arbitrator puts all of it in the database, showing that Johnny is not someone you would want to do business with. There could be a number of online and offline backup databases to ensure no one tampers with them.

A credit rating is a kind of reputation. Debts that are so small they are not worth taking to court or even arbitrators are still regularly paid off because of one’s credit rating. Stefan Molyneux explains (here and here) that we already operate under such a system, and that expanding it with dispute-resolution organisations, or DROs, could be advantageous to all.

Picture for a moment the infinite complexity of modern economic life. Most individuals bind themselves to dozens of contracts, from car loans and mortgages to cell phone contracts, gym membership, condo agreements and so on. To flourish in a free market, a man must honour his contracts. A reputation for honest dealing is the foundation of a successful economic life. Now, few DROs will want to represent a man who regularly breaks contracts, or associates with difficult and litigious people. (For instance, this writer once refrained from entering into a business partnership because the potential partner revealed that he had sued two previous partners.)

People will need to be represented by DROs because their being accepted into mainstream society will demand it. Without a contract with a DRO, one would have no credibility as an honest broker and thus no chance of entering into contracts—at least, contracts without very high fees and penalties for breaking them.

A DRO would be liable for crimes their clients commit. If a man murdered his wife, he would lose his contract (which would prohibit murder) and have to pay some penalty to the next of kin. That might mean forced labour under some kind of imprisonment. DROs “are as ancient as civilization itself, but have been shouldered aside by the constant escalation of State power over the last century or so…. [They make] all the information formerly known by the local community available to the world as whole, just as credit reports do.” And insurance can be created for just about anything.


Arbitration has made courts superfluous in many areas, with tens of thousands of arbitrations conducted every year. Arbitration is a kind of privately-produced law, as it involves two people voluntarily coming together, choosing their own terms and accepting someone else’s ruling. Arbitrators have been around since the Middle Ages, and developed the whole body of merchant law. None of them could violently enforce their rulings.

In a society of polycentric law, arbitrators would be chosen for their expertise, efficiency and integrity as impartial judges, as they are now. Arbitration has even gone online. is a company that resolves international disputes in a matter of days based on common principles of justice. It is an efficient and very promising service.

Choosing the law

Private law means we can choose which laws to abide by, instead of hoping to impose them on others. Sure, people in polycentric legal societies will get things wrong; but they will get them less wrong, with less drastic, society-wide consequences, than state law. David Friedman’s argument is that, since the government does not do anything efficiently or better than the free market, why would we expect it to make laws right? A monopoly is rarely necessarily or preferable; why would a monopoly on the production of law be different?

In a free market for law, a large number of security firms would exist that, for a fee, would enforce the basic rights, including contracts, of their customers. Imagine my television goes missing. The camera my security agency has installed in my home saw the person who did it. The thief the agency identified denies the crime. I have a rights-enforcement agency, but so do you. The two agencies might go to war over my claim to get my TV back, right?

But wars are very expensive and private firms want to minimise costs. War only profits those who wage it when they steal the money used to pay for it from someone else through taxation. Instead, the agencies could decide on a netural arbitrator who will decide to whom the TV belongs. Since such disputes are likely to recur, policies will stipulate when the firms will approach an arbitrator.

Since such firms will deal with each other for a long time, they will be able to agree on rules and industry standards. Instead of fighting, they will have rules and mechanisms in place to enforce rulings of the arbitrators. If firms attempt to collude, it is likely that customers will desert them, as existing and potential customers find that legitimate claims are not redressed.

In order for a rights-enforcement agency, an arbitration agency or a private court to make money, people need to choose to use it. So who would their customers be? A polycentric legal order would resolve the debates over, say, the implementation of Islamic sharia, because Muslims who want sharia (which is not all Muslims, just so you know) can abide by it, and would not force others to follow it. Strict, Orthodox Jews would shop at a different agency. Libertarians who do not want too many rules would have their own. Pacifists might choose arbitration without enforcement.

Dealing with aggression

Contracts are a very useful way to solve disputes. Perhaps I sign a contract when I move somewhere that I am not going to let my grass grow too high or scatter car parts on the lawn, and if I break it, there is recourse to kick me out. But what about torts or crimes of aggression where there has been no contract? Murray Rothbard has some ideas. The free market offers endless possibilities—whatever people can offer that customers want. Insurance companies would pay the victims of crime, the breaking of contracts, the winners of arbitration, then pursue the aggressors in court to recoup their losses. Competing defense agencies would exist to protect people, and they would likely work closely with the insurance companies: the less crime there is, the less the insurance companies need to pay out. Insurance companies would probably lower the cost of burglary insurance to those with alarm systems, or trained gun owners. Thus, the incentives for swift, efficient restitution with a minimum of violence are built in to the system.

Holly accuses Johnny of a crime. Johnny gives her the finger and does not show up in court or send a representative. As a result, his side of the case is not heard. If he is found guilty, he might nonetheless accept the verdict. If not, he could go to another court, he could appeal, and so on. If courts and appeals continue to find Johnny guilty, they will have found him guilty of aggression. In a society based on the non-aggression principle, this is, in effect, a crime. Private defense agencies thus have the moral authority to demand restitution and employ violence if it is not forthcoming.

In a free society, people would be free not to press charges, or not to employ violence if other parties did not accept rulings against them. Nonetheless, in the eyes of anyone with access to a reputation or contract-rating database (which would be everyone), those who violate the NAP would have all manner of sanction against them. They would find it difficult to buy a car, for instance, because they would not be trusted to pay for it. Finally, crimes against “society” would not exist (and arguably do not exist at the moment).

I am sure that, like with everything an anarchist proposes, statists will be able to find holes in the theory and “what if” their ideas to death. A few holes in the presentation of a theory does not invalidate it, especially when it is something everyone will have the chance to influence, unlike the current way of dispensing law. They are free to continue to believe they are best represented by the “justice” system as it is now. All we ask is that they respect others’ opinions enough to let them try their own way of doing things. They could be attempted on a micro level, with a few hundred or a few thousand people.

A system of polycentric law would eliminate victimless crimes, because people could choose their own laws. It would be fairer, instead of today’s system of treating rich people’s crimes as misdemeanors and minorities or the poor’s crimes as murder. It would simplify laws, meaning far less need for expensive lawyers. It would lower costs, meaning everyone could afford it; or at least, it would be easy to raise money for those who could not. And we would not have every law and verdict handed down by a self-interested elite.

Has anarchy existed before?

June 11, 2012 25 comments

Anarchists often get asked if anarchy has ever existed, and if it has ever worked. On one level, the question seems ironic. When do they think the state has “worked” before? These people who think we can somehow reform the state and turn it into a tool for social justice are, unlike anarchists, as this post will show, the ones who have no history to back up their claims.

Everyday anarchy

It has been argued anarchy is wherever people do things without being forced to. Consider Butler Shaffer’s argument.

I am often asked if anarchy has ever existed in our world, to which I answer: almost all of your daily behavior is an anarchistic expression. How you deal with your neighbors, coworkers, fellow customers in shopping malls or grocery stores, is often determined by subtle processes of negotiation and cooperation. Social pressures, unrelated to statutory enactments, influence our behavior on crowded freeways or grocery checkout lines. If we dealt with our colleagues at work in the same coercive and threatening manner by which the state insists on dealing with us, our employment would be immediately terminated. We would soon be without friends were we to demand that they adhere to specific behavioral standards that we had mandated for their lives.

Should you come over to our home for a visit, you will not be taxed, searched, required to show a passport or driver’s license, fined, jailed, threatened, handcuffed, or prohibited from leaving. I suspect that your relationships with your friends are conducted on the same basis of mutual respect. In short, virtually all of our dealings with friends and strangers alike are grounded in practices that are peaceful, voluntary, and devoid of coercion.

Anarchy works every day as we interact with the people around us. But, admittedly, it does not get to the heart of the question: can a society exist without a state?

Before answering that question, however, another arises. Where has the state worked? I do not mean, where has the state maintained order and created a national health-care system. The state has done lots of things. But at what cost? Given what we know about the state, a huge one. In Jonathan Goodwin’s words, “The list of state failures is exactly as long as the list of state-run programs. Should the burden of proof of the benefits of considering anarchy and opposing the state really be on the proponent of anarchy?”

If you are looking for an example of a modern nation state that has gone anarchist, you will not find one. The very idea that a nation state could somehow eliminate its government and retain its territorial integrity is fatuous. It would almost inevitably become a number of self-governing communities. They might develop a confederation based on perceived shared values, but they would not force policies on millions of people through representatives, bureaucrats and police. A large country can only be held together by force. Somalia is not fully anarchic; however, to the extent that it is, it is doing pretty well.

Other societies throughout history, however, have done far better.

Everywhere anarchy

Anthropologist David Graeber says anarchy has existed in thousands of places before. Anarchy means no coercive hierarchy and no rulers with the ability to initiate force over an entire population. Anarchy is an ideal condition of humanity. It is not something that will be accomplished in six months of reading books. But in one way or another, at different times, there are opportunities to throw off the state and work and cooperate freely. As such, there have been a number of relatively or completely anarchic societies throughout history. They may have been small communities defending themselves from encroaching empires, confederations with skeletal local governments, or other voluntary, self-governing collectives. Anarchy has existed. It is simply governance–making and enforcing rules–without the state.

In fact, it was the norm for a long time. Yale professor James C. Scott explains. “Until shortly before the common era, the very last 1 percent of human history, the social landscape consisted of elementary self-governing kinship units that might, occasionally, cooperate in hunting, feasting, skirmishing, trading, and peacemaking. It did not contain anything one could call a state. In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been the standard human condition.”

Thus, to say the state is necessary due to human nature is erroneous. The era of statelessness was the longest era of human governance, and the first states that arose were trivial compared to those of today. “To an eye not yet hypnotized by archaeological remains and state-centric histories, the landscape would have seemed virtually all periphery and no centers. Nearly all the population and territory were outside their ambit.” People sought refuge in places out of the way, such as the Amazon, where today indigenous people are losing their ancestral homes to agricultural and industrial expansion, aided by state muscle; highland Latin America and Africa; the Balkans and the Caucasus. Living outside the state was a realistic option until only a few hundred years ago.


Scott’s book is called the Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. In it, he explains the history of the politically autonomous region of different ethnic groups in the highlands of Southeast Asia (dubbed Zomia in 2002), who descended from groups that left the lowland state. The people of the whole region reorganised their social structures, folklore and agriculture to be inaccessible to the state.

When the state attempts to incorporate stateless people, it clothes its actions in the language of civilising the barbarians: development, economic progress, literacy, and so on. However, it inevitably does so by force. Those escaping predatory states were runaway conscripts and slaves, war refugees, religious minorities and those fleeing taxes, and others who predicted the same fate for themselves.

Their social structures presented no hierarchy that encroaching states could have used as agents of control. “Their subsistence routines, their social organization, their physical dispersal, and many elements of their culture, far from being the archaic traits of a people left behind, are purposefully crafted both to thwart incorporation into nearby states and to minimize the likelihood that statelike concentrations of power will arise among them. State evasion and state prevention permeate their practices and, often, their ideology as well.” The long existence of Zomia disproves the hypotheses that we require some form of coercive hierarchy to function as societies and that an elite with coercive authority will always emerge over time.

The Apaches

When the Spanish came to Central America, they made short work of Montezuma and Tenochtitlan, along with Atahualpa and Incan civilisation. Why? Because if you cut off their head of a rigidly hierarchical organisation, which the Spanish did by killing its chief, you incapacitate it. Then they went to the Apaches. The Apaches did not have rulers. Instead, they had spiritual leaders called a Nant’an (eg. Geronimo), who led only by example and not coercion. From the Starfish and the Spider: “You wanted to follow Geronimo? You followed Geronimo. You didn’t want to follow him? Then you didn’t. The power lay with each individual—you were free to do what you wanted. The phrase ‘you should’ doesn’t even exist in the Apache language. Coercion is a foreign concept.” They were free people, most of whom resisted the Conquistadors’ attempts to adopt an agrarian life and convert to Christianity. They fought back and won and held back the Spanish for centuries. The Apaches succeeded so long because of the decentralised way they organised their society.

There was no capital or central command, so decisions were made all over. “A raid on a Spanish settlement, for example, could be conceived in one place, organised in another, and carried out in yet another. You never knew where the Apaches would be coming from. In one sense, there was no place where important decisions were made, and in another sense, decisions were made by everybody everywhere.”

Apache society was not disorganised. It was in fact very advanced and complex. But it was decentralised—very differently from a hierarchical society. A decentralised society is characterised by flexibility, shared power and ambiguity, which “made the Apaches immune to attacks that would have destroyed a centralised society.”

The Spanish would try to kill the leaders but leaders kept emerging. Likewise, you could kill people participating in the Egyptian Revolution but it would not stop the Revolution. In fact, when you attacked the Apaches, they survived and got stronger as a result. They decentralised even more. “This is the first major principle of decentralisation: when attacked, a decentralised organisation tends to become even more open and decentralised.”


Ireland was also effectively anarchic until conquered by England. It functioned as a number of confederations (called tuatha) composed of independent political units that came together annually to vote on common policies. People were free to, and did, secede from their confederation and join another. Association was voluntary.

Laws were not changed at the whim of rulers (because Ireland was not ruled) but when people voted in an assembly to change them. Laws were not created by a clique, as in our time; nor was justice dispensed by a monopoly provider. Parties to disputes selected from a number of professional jurists chosen for their wisdom, integrity and knowledge of customary law. Several schools of jurisprudence existed and competed for the business of dispensing justice. Other people, in effect insurance providers, were independent from the jurists and joined with the party that won the case to exact punishment on the loser. If the loser did not pay, the entire community considered him an outlaw and would no longer engage in contracts with him.

Ireland suffered small-scale conflicts, but without a central state that taxes and conscripts, these were negligible compared to the bloodbaths of the rest of Europe. Ireland may not have been the ideal anarchy, but in the absence of Enlightenment ideas of freedom, justice and equality, it did well.


Opportunities to escape the state arise during revolutions and wars. During Egypt’s recent revolutionary uprising, every neighbourhood in Cairo formed—within 48 hours—lagaan shaabiyya, or popular committees. When the police suddenly left the streets, they opened up the jails, letting out thugs who, they intended, would terrorise the people into begging the police to come back. Instead, despite thousands of years of dictatorship, the people organised and substituted for the police, protecting the people in their communities and even cleaning the streets. They made decisions as communities and demonstrated amply that they could replace the state if necessary.

During the Spanish Civil War, the state was in crisis and lost its ability to govern large parts of the country. Workers controlled factories, peasants collectivised farms, people used barter instead of money, started libraries, schools and cultural centers, and organised militias to fight in the civil war. Spain’s brief experiment with anarchy was by no means utopian, as war imposes a variety of constraints on people. But it could be replicated and improved on.

In Ukraine in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, a free state emerged comprising millions of people. Throughout the Russian Empire, as imperial authority collapsed, workers, soldiers and peasants began to reject any outside authority and establish self-governing cooperatives. They began by arresting state officials, occupying government buildings and disarming police. They were eventually ruthlessly crushed by the central government, much as the communities in Spain were. But they demonstrated, as the did the Southeast Asians, the Irish, the Spanish, the Egyptians and, as we shall see next, the French, that anarchy is desirable and practical—if it can be maintained in the face of state aggression.

In the wake of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, the Paris Commune was established. The Commune was independent of the French state and self-regulating. The armed workers defended Paris against German soldiers and for some time French government aggression, but were eventually overwhelmed and murdered in droves. Like some of the other examples, the Commune was not the ideal picture of anarchy, but it nonetheless comprised free people in community warding off oppression. They did well in the time (less than a year) they had. As Mikhail Bakunin said at the time,

Contrary to the belief of authoritarian communists—which I deem completely wrong—that a social revolution must be decreed and organized either by a dictatorship or by a constituent assembly emerging from a political revolution, our friends, the Paris socialists, believed that revolution could neither be made nor brought to its full development except by the spontaneous and continued action of the masses, the groups and the associations of the people. Our Paris friends were right a thousand times over.

This list is not exhaustive; again, there have been thousands of cases (here, here, here), only a few of which have been recorded.

Many people will read these examples and reject them because they do not conform in every way to the ideals of a stateless society. They are presumably the same people who would dismiss all anarchist or voluntaryist thinking by saying it is utopian. The societies that have existed without the state are evidence the state is not necessary, and people who want to can live free. It is also evidence utopia is difficult or impossible to achieve. So what? One does not need utopia to be free of the state. The coming posts outline the theory and methods for achieving a stateless society even more successful than these ones. The point is, freedom works for the people wherever it is tried, whether in a community wishing to free itself from oppression, or simply to the extent it is allowed in a state system.

But even though anarchy has been attempted and has worked, an equally reasonable answer is it does not matter. New ideas work if they make sense and enough people agree to put them into practice. When John F. Kennedy said the US would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, nobody asked if it had been done before. When slavery was abolished, it was not important to ask if there had been historical precedents. The abolition of slavery was an idea whose time had come. Many people thought that it was impossible to get rid of slavery—after all, that would be extremism—and slaves were better off in captivity than free. It turned out they were wrong. Anti-abolitionists used to ask “but how will the cotton get picked?” But if the cause is moral, it does not matter how the cotton will get picked or the roads will get built. People who need a historical precedent for anything before they consider it have not attempted to use their imaginations. Whether it has existed or not is irrelevant when considering if it could work in the future.


July 25, 2011 3 comments

The ultimate straw man for a statist to use against an anarchist is Somalia. “If you don’t like the government, go to Somalia! You can be a pirate!” And then they laugh, as if that was a clever trump card. I don’t think so. First, no anarchist who knows what he is talking about advocates an immediate or violent implosion of government, like what happened to Siad Barre’s government in 1991. Anarchism is also called voluntarism or voluntaryism, because anarchists want to see voluntary institutions arise over time to replace the coercive ones of government. Life was not good, or voluntary, under Siad Barre.

Second, the violence in Somalia is committed by groups fighting each other in order to form the government and control the levers of power. This violence has been exacerbated by well-meaning westerners who think they know which group should rule the country. Anarchists believe that the initiation of force is wrong, which is why government is wrong, and no one should be allowed to form the government. A variety of warlords fighting for control of the people is hardly a voluntary society. Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion of Somalia to shore up its proxy army there did not help much either.

Besides, many countries with governments are worse off than Somalia, so government is obviously not the answer. To say the reason places like Canada and Australia and Germany are peaceful is purely because of the existence of government is simplistic because it is divorced from history. Among other reasons, one could point to the political culture. A lot of our rules come from people’s simply deciding that certain things are right and wrong. Some rules are in place because government put them there, though many of those rules are based on natural laws like no killing or enforcing contracts. If those rules, if the government superstructure went away over time, would we stop following all rules? Of course not. We already believe that certain rules are right. For example, one day when I was living in Canada, the traffic lights near my house broke down. What do you think happened? Do you think everyone started racing through the intersection, and there were dozens of fatal accidents? Actually, there were no accidents. Everyone simply behaved as if there were a stop sign there instead. The stop sign rule was one they were all already familiar with and agreed with. It was a custom, and we adhere to customs unthinkingly. They didn’t need a traffic light there, just like they didn’t need a policeman handing out tickets to enforce compliance.

But back to the Horn of Africa. Under Siad Barre, Somalia did not have rules accepted by the people; it had rule by one man (so kind of like a majority government in Canada). Siad Barre killed and tortured thousands of people. There was no civil society because everything was forced from the top down. How could they have expected the collapse of his government to have led to a voluntary society? Anyway, Somalia outside Mogadishu is not as bad as people seem to think. After 1991, things began to grow more peaceful, and by the late 1990s, most of Somalia was at peace. There is sporadic  fighting among rival gangs, but there is not so much violence against civilians. (1) (Sounds a bit like Los Angeles.) There is no question a humanitarian crisis afflicts Somalia (given that some of the refugees I teach in Cairo come from Somalia, I would have to be blind not to know that), though violence is not the only factor. The militant group al-Shabab, styling itself as government, has decided to prevent food aid to millions of Somalis. Nevertheless, the people are more healthy and prosperous, and obviously far more free, than they were under Siad Barre (2), which means that they are better off now than they were. (That is partly due to the existence of humanitarian aid groups, who were not allowed during Siad Barre’s time.) Telecommunications have improved as well. A variety of companies are operating with no government regulation, and as a result, Somalia has more phone lines and internet access than most of the rest of Africa. (3) Water and electricity are provided by the private sector, and social insurance comes from remittances and the expansive clan-based family structure. Somalis have access to private healthcare at low costs. Somalia now has universities it didn’t have under statism. Somalia has made decent economic progress since Siad Barre, and some major multinationals like Coca-Cola, DHL and affiliates of General Motors and British Airways have investments in the country. Somalia’s financial sector is doing well, and Somalis lend and borrow a lot of money. Because there is no central bank, inflation is low. Somalis have access to the latest electronic gadgets, too, thanks in large part to the Somali diaspora. (4) In fact, even in Mogadishu things are a lot better. Rapid construction of hotels and restaurants and a light manufacturing industry are developing. (5) If you think things are as bad as they were during the disastrous US “Black Hawk Down” intervention, you might find there is more to Somalia than meets the eye that hasn’t done its research. Of course, if you are going to compare Somalia to Canada and Australia and Germany, fine, it is far worse, but that can hardly be a fair comparison, can it?

Civil society crept back after Siad Barre, and with it returned Xeer [ħeːr], the traditional Somali legal system. Xeer is a functioning legal system that nonetheless has no single authority. Rather than a body that endlessly makes laws to regulate every aspect of life like we have and change with the whims of the powerful, elders mediate disputes based largely on natural human rights. Dispute resolution is a lot faster and cheaper than the average national justice system. (6) Waddaya know? There can still be law and order, even when there is no national government.

Then people talk about piracy as some kind of inevitable consequence of Somalia’s lawless society. However, anyone who reads beyond the headlines knows that the real reason some—not as many as you might think—Somalis have turned to piracy is that rich-country fishermen, with no respect for Somali property rights, went there, poached all the fish they could, dumped their waste and destroyed the fishing industry. Piracy is not only understandable but also, in effect, payback.

Unfortunately, attempts by outsiders (Barack, I’m looking at you) to battle the small al-Qaeda presence in Somalia are likely to lead to the deterioration of a country doggedly building itself up from the bottom. It certainly did not help the first time. Perhaps they should just leave Somalis alone to figure things out for themselves, which seems in fact to have been working so far, and stop trying to impose their statist dreams on everyone.








July 8, 2011 1 comment

Now that we have made the police redundant, how will we deal with crime? “Crime” in the legal sense would not exist in a free society, because people would be constrained by their consciencesand not uniformed thugs. But of course there would still be the initiation of violence against innocent people; it just would not carry any legitimacy. As such, it might be easier to reduce. The state, as it is now, encourages crime.

First, when something for which there is still demand is made illegal, the market goes underground and it becomes more valuable—so valuable, in fact, people will kill for it. People kill each other on the streets because of drugs every day, and the police sometimes kill innocent people they suspect of selling drugs as well. Sex slavery is enabled by the criminalisation of prostitution, and as a result, women from all over the world are bought and sold, and violence against them is routine. Human trafficking, similar in effect to sex trafficking, is the result of closed borders. Any law prohibiting something is a potentially lucrative black market, with the accompanying violence.

Second, to the extent that one is not allowed to defend oneself and must wait for the police to show up, criminals can take advantage of their weakness. The recent riots in the UK are an excellent example of a disarmed populace waiting to be victimised, held to ransom by the state, their protector. The more dependent we are on people who do not care about us, the weaker we are in the face of aggression.

I tend to agree with Murray Rothbard that if there were just one law, it should be that of ownership. That means ownership of everything you have created (though “ownership” over one’s children is somewhat different, as they too are humans who own themselves) or acquired through consensual transactions, plus the right to the protection of your body, which is your possession as well. Property must not be violated, which means that harming others or destroying their property, forcibly taking money or other things legitimately acquired is theft (including taxation). Beyond that, there should be no crimes. But this position is not universally held.

I remember watching Ann Coulter on Youtube saying liberals want to force you to do what they think is right. I wish I had been there to say “Yeah, liberals suck that way. By the way Ann, what’s your stance on gay marriage?” Statists of all points on the spectrum want to gain power in order to use government to force their opinions of what is right and wrong on others.

As such, anything a special interest group do not like or would benefit from the criminalisation of can be illegal. Anything that makes people squirm can be illegal. Policing victimless crimes create victims. The banning of veils in public seems unnecessary and incompatible with a free society. But we do not want to give others freedom; we want conformity. Raw milk is illegal in the US; and laws and regulations, pushed by big farms to destroy little ones, are punishing Americans farmers like crazy. Law is great for that. Kids almost get fined $500 for a lemonade stand, the funds from which would have gone to charity; Orlando police lock up a bunch of people for feeding the homeless. I guess they deserved it. If you want to use public space to help people, you’d better have a license!

Police have the power to read your emails, instant messages and the location of your mobile phone.  Is privacy a crime now? But I guess privacy is a luxury that we, in this age of really scary things, just can’t afford anymore. Sad, really, because not only do we have to follow whatever laws the government decides on, whether we agree with them or not, but because the government appropriates the tools created in the private sector for its own purposes, now we can be tracked electronically in case we break one of them.

Power, by definition, is unaccountable. The police are somewhat accountable, but they also have power, which means to an extent they are unaccountable. The courts are much the same. The purpose of the courts was always said to be the dispensation of justice, but when one juxtaposes headlines that say “Ex-Mortgage CEO Sentenced to Prison [for 40 months] for $3B Fraud” and “Homeless man gets 15 years for stealing $100”, you need to question this purpose. Either the courts are staggeringly inconsistent, or the system is rigged toward the powerful.

Prisons have an enormous amount of power. Once someone is deemed unfit for society, whether because they killed 10 children or stole and returned $100, their lives come under the complete control of the state. But while in prisons one can see the greatest concentration of government power, prisons are riddled with violence and drugs. The state claims to protect against crime but turns the other way when crimes are committed against criminals. Prisons are notorious hotbeds of rape. No one is safe in prison.

The rate of incarceration in the US is 743 per 100,000 people. That is the highest rate in the world. One in every hundred Americans is imprisoned during his or her lifetime, many of them for victimless crimes like drug possession. We tend to look at prisons as inherently good, an unquestioned net benefit for society, but we should pay attention to their costs. More prisons is not a way to reduce crime: it is a way to benefit the prison lobby. If there were no government, we could still have prisons, as there will still be people who are unrelentingly violent, but we would do more careful cost-benefit analyses of how our money was spent on them.

Prisons do not seem to work very well. As the “justice system” has evolved, it has gradually separated the victim and the perpetrator. Now, criminals are expected to “repay their debt to society” instead of repaying it to the only person they have wronged, by going through a court and prison system that costs the victim and all other taxpayers billions of dollars a year; and the victim may not even get compensation. It is not up to him. Prisons seem to be the only solution we can think of to crime: someone kills? Throw him in jail. Someone steals a candy bar? Throw him in jail too, at huge cost to society regardless of the magnitude of the crime.

There should only be two parties in criminal punishment: the one who aggressed against someone’s property, and the victim of that aggression. If the victim wants to forgive the aggressor, it should be done. If the victim orders the aggressor to pay the victim proportionally, it is fair. Not everyone has to go to jail.

How will we deal with other crimes? Stefan Molyneux makes a great case, so I will farm this one out to him. Read his excellent case for dealing with crime here. In the end, the logic of dismissing governments from “protecting” us, to whatever extent they ever have, is airtight.


May 18, 2011 11 comments

Voluntaryism is based on the non-aggression principle. The non-aggression principle states that self-defense is fine, but you should never aggress, never commit any act of violence, including threats and destruction or theft of property, to someone who has not done the same. All initiation of force is illegitimate. In our last post, we saw how the science of human nature refutes the argument that we need to be forced. Governments initiate the use of force in two ways. One is through taxation, which we will cover in more detail in a later post. The other is through law. Law is a directive you must follow or you are fined or sent to jail. If you resist the fine, you go to jail. If you resist jail, you are attacked. They can be as severe as the government’s arbitrary decisions make them. Laws are what give the government is veneer of legitimacy. If something is legal, it must be moral, right?

Why must things be done by force? That is the question every statist must answer for every issue they think only government can handle. Why does it have to be done by force? Why can people not be allowed to think about it and decide for themselves? Why is government morality superior to that of the individual? I just don’t understand why freedom is less important than the basic result of law, conformity. And yet, many democrats think their system is best precisely because it affords the most freedom. Wanting to pass restrictive laws and then claiming to love freedom is hypocrisy. It seems to be the natural impulse of most people living under a government to avocate passing a law to solve any problem that arises. We will address a few of the countless reasons why laws do not solve problems in later posts. For now, we should bear in mind that laws are not the same as morality. For instance, do you think the reason we are not killing each other is because it is illegal? Well, would you kill anyone? Do you know anyone who would?

Law creates a kind of double standard. The powerful do what they want and the powerless do what they are told. In the words of Stefan Molyneux,

I can’t go next door and threaten my neighbour with force in order to get him to pay for my child’s education, but the government can through property rights and the educational system. I can’t find some guy in my neighbourhood who’s smoking some herb that I find objectionable, lock him up in some basement and then call myself an armed warrior for justice through the War on Drugs. I can’t print money based on nothing and use it as legitimate currency; the government can. And I can’t create debt that other people have to pay without any choice in the matter. That’s called fraud. But for the government it’s called deficit financing and it goes to future generations. So government, by definition, is that social entity which legalises whatever is criminal for everyone else in the population…. Law is an opinion with a gun.

(Stefan forgot to mention that invasion and occupation are called democracy promotion and nation building, but he was in an interview, so we can forgive him!)

Law is thus separate from culture. If something is truly culture or religion, there is no reason to legislate it. Legislation would only entrench a custom or practice that lawmakers or interested parties deem desirable rather than letting it evolve, as cultures and religions do.

Do you believe that the purpose of law is to defend people against the arbitrary exercise of state power? Because that is demonstrably false. Who is it that makes these laws? Self-interested politicians. They hardly ever do anything to curb their own power, although sometimes they use the law to curb the power of future governments; for example, Israeli settlement policy has made it harder (some say impossible) for future Israeli governments to withdraw from the West Bank.

The rule of law is held us as the standard all nations should aspire to. But we have natural laws that govern us, without the need for force. Why is a government considered ideal? Why do we need to be ruled by others at all? How about the rule of freedom? When Winston Churchill heard about the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 and the equally bloody crackdown in Iraq in 1920, he was appalled by what he saw as abuses. And yet, because he was an ethnocentrist like most people, he continued to believe in the superiority of British civilisation because it was characterised by the rule of law. The rule of law didn’t do the Indians and the Iraqis much good, did it?

And why would it? Law has nothing to do with morality. That is why I have no problem with people on juries who vote to acquit people of crimes they do not believe should be crimes, like drug possession or beating up Donald Rumsfeld, even in the face of overwhelming evidence they are “guilty”. (More on this subject here.) If there is no crime, there is no guilt.

Neither is law an agreement of all the people. When friends tell me that the reason we have certain laws and social programs is that we as a society have agreed on them, I have trouble believing their naivety. Laws are created by parliamentarians, whom, if you are in the majority, you did not vote for. They are part of a small clique that decides what is right for people they believe cannot decide those things for themselves. As such, they cannot claim to represent you and the diverse district or country you live in. And you can try to change the law, if you really want. But I do not know how you expect to win. Two reasons more people do not work harder to repeal all the ridiculous laws out there are the enormous time and effort it would take, and the low odds of success. Neither does it help that governments often enact a new law down the road, which while different in appearance, their spirit mimics that of the law that was abrogated. If lobbyists truly want something, it would take an enormous tide of popular opposition to prevent its becoming law.

Law is not good for society. Milton Friedman once said,

calling on the government to solve problems strains that social fabric of agreement on basic values that is necessary to maintain a stable society. In order to have any kind of a stable society, you have to have people agree with one another. You have to have a certain minimum common set of values and beliefs. And you want to avoid straining that set of beliefs. Now, the great virtue of the market is that people who hate one another in other respects can cooperate with each other on the market without any difficulty…. Political mechanisms have the opposite arrangement. You have to enforce conformity on people.

The court system is part of the enforcement mechanism. You have to be pretty patient and rich to take your grievances to court. But private mediators exist who will spare you the hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of “justice” you will find in the dispute-resolution mechanism of the state. Private mediators solve union grievances and divorce proceedings very well, without having to beg a judge for a decision. It is also not necessary to take most debt claims to court. If people or businesses do not pay off their debts, they get bad credit ratings from private companies, and cannot take out loans. (The government has a habit of ignoring credit ratings and encouraging lending to bad credit risks because it is politically popular to do so, but it is not conducive to much lasting good, just subprime mortgage crises.) People sign countless contracts in their daily lives and stick to them: mortgages, loans, car rental agreements, apartments, and so on. If there were some kind of dispute resolution organisation with a database (which could operate for a profit), anyone wanting to enter into an agreement with you would check it. If people violate their contracts, they go into the database as welchers, and if they do what they promise, they get positive ratings. That is what eBay and Amazon do already, and they have shown it works. If they did not fulfill the terms of their contracts, they would have no chance of flourishing in the free market, because no one would do business with them anymore. Insurance companies will want to know both how credit-worthy a person is, how risky the people he or she associates with are, and charge them accordingly for insurance. (If you still have objections, find a more complete discussion here) So do we really need courts for interpersonal dispute resolution? Ah, but perhaps dispute resolution is not justice. Perhaps justice is revenge. I like to think we can find a more peaceful solution.

The only real laws we need are the natural laws of property, which includes our bodies, that which we create, and that which we acquire in voluntary, reciprocal transactions. The sanctity of property is embodied in the non-aggression principle: no initiating violence, no stealing, no threats. (See further discussion here.) The law, the gun that forces us to comply with everything the elites want, runs contrary to the non-aggression principle, and is therefore immoral.